Refining Innovation or Opening Innovation?

Guest post by Kevin Flora


In a recent podcast, the discussion was focused around inventions.  The question was asked, “have all of the good inventions already been invented?”  The answer to this question was not a surprise.  Instead of inventing new products, the past few decades have focused on improving already existing products – making the cell phone smaller, computer storage larger, etc.  In a sense, our human minds have transformed the definition of innovation to mean refining existing material. 

Now focus on innovation in the field of education.  The layout of a classroom, the way teaching is conducted, and the school system has not changed much since the 19th century.  We still sit in rows, have a hierarchical structure that is controlled by negative reinforcement, and read textbooks.  Education as a whole is a closed system.  Innovation in education would then be a matter of refining a closed system to benefit the individual learner.  We see “innovative” ideas such as placing technology in the classroom, the flipped learning style, and project-based learning.  But is that all that is left to do in education?  Can there be more?  Have all of the good inventions already been invented?

I want to introduce you to Buddy Berry.  He is the superintendent of Eminence Independent Schools in Eminence, Kentucky.  The small school building which houses all K-12 students was producing some of the lowest standardized test scores in the state prior to Berry’s leadership.  Instead of refining Eminence procedures, Berry opened up his mind to endless possibilities (resulting in a complete turnaround on state scores).  Along with having a classroom (wifi included) on a bus, a slide in the cafeteria, and kindergarten-aged kids completing an online presentation before moving on to first grade, Berry is working on changing Kentucky’s policy on enrollment.  Instead of going to a school based on where one lives, Berry proposes the state to have open enrollment and students should choose their school.  Some states already have this option, but Berry asserts that children in Kentucky could have a better education if they were able to have options in their education. 

Implications of going from closed enrollment to open enrollment are amazing.  New jobs are created so consultants can help parents / guardians customize schooling based on what is best for the child.  Essentially, every student has an individualized learning plan that extends from one end of the state to the other.  Also, schools are in competition to provide better quality education to keep students coming in.  Instead of considering innovation as a refining process, try to think of how you can innovate with an open mindset.  Do not grow weary of changing the world!   If you knew anything that you did would succeed, how would you open up your educational setting?

Image credit: Flickr user masondan  

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

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The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.